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December 14, 2020

Leading Through COVID-19:
5 Lessons Learned

By Stacy Kruse

2020 has been an unusual business year. COVID-19 took us all by surprise and tested our ability to adjust quickly to many new normals.

As I reflect over the last nine months, I realize that the pandemic completely shifted my approach to leadership. I’ve become a more flexible and engaged leader who’s gone deeper into the organization than ever before. Understanding what people are thinking, their needs, and how we can work together is essential for the organization to rise up to the challenges we face, and all move forward in the same direction.

I connected with Portico President and CEO the Rev. Jeff Thiemann over video conference recently to talk about leading our organization through this crisis and get his perspective. I want to share our learnings in the hope that others may find them useful. After all, as we’ve discovered here at Portico, it takes a community to overcome trying times.

LEARNING #1: TEST YOUR CRISIS PLAN

For years, Portico’s corporate recovery team has had a crisis plan in place to help ensure business continuity. In 2018, we had a chance to test that plan when Minneapolis hosted the Super Bowl. We anticipated that the downtown area where we office might be overrun with people coming in, so we decided to migrate our staff to a remote work environment for the busiest days. Our IT team reviewed our infrastructure and determined that it wasn’t robust enough to go fully remote, so we invested in the right setup. It worked, and the remote workforce test was successful. That exercise helped us be ready for the pandemic. As news of COVID-19 broke, our corporate recovery team initiated our crisis response, and we were able to move our entire staff to a fully remote work environment within a few days and with no gaps in service.

LEARNING #2: COMMUNICATE OPENLY AND LISTEN CLOSELY

When I asked Jeff what he thinks we’ve done well in response to the pandemic, he talked about how often we’ve communicated with our staff, and how transparent we’ve been. “Our employees appreciate open and authentic communication from us, which has been a combination of what we know AND what we don’t know.” I agreed. We’re listening more intently than ever before to understand how people are feeling, what their needs and concerns are, and how they’re coping. For example, we conduct frequent employee surveys, including live polls during all-employee meetings, where everyone can see their colleagues’ responses in real time. The live feedback lets employees know how others are feeling and it helps keep us accountable in responding to those needs. I personally email the entire organization every Friday to keep everyone abreast of what we’re thinking about as leaders and how we’re acting on the feedback we’re given. Employees appreciate the transparency and thorough communications, and Jeff and I both appreciate how this new practice of open communication and active listening is shaping how we direct our future.

LEARNING #3: BE PREPARED TO PIVOT

COVID-19 was a sink or swim situation for us internally and externally. We had to immediately adjust to the new landscape, not only by working remotely for the safety of our staff, but also by anticipating our customers’ needs. We worked quickly to make sure that employers knew about the Paycheck Protection Program and other federal COVID-19 relief measures. And we made sure our members received support, such as COVID-19 tests at no out-of-pocket cost. Jeff said, “Right off the bat, we engaged with government agencies and our partners to include COVID-19 relief in our health plans. And we pivoted very quickly to interact with our customers online and stay attuned to what they need. We’re hearing how tired our members are, so we’re providing the information they need in smaller, bite-sized pieces that are easier to digest. Also, internally at Portico, we made the decision early on to make our standard ’cameras on’ and use video for meetings. That decision came out of our values and who we are as a relational ministry. Preserving relationships externally and internally is important. It’s a reflection of how we live out who we are in this different way of doing things.”

LEARNING #4: FIND THE SILVER LININGS

Though COVID-19 has presented us with many challenges, we’ve also found an important silver lining that drives to the core of our mission at Portico: The importance of tending to our own well-being right now. Jeff said, “There are days when living through this pandemic is more exhausting than any other times in our lives. But a silver lining is that we are recognizing in our heads and our hearts that we must tend to our own well-being. Despite the incredible demands on our time and attention and the need to listen, communicate, and innovate, we’ve learned we must take time to care for ourselves so that we can be well. We can come out of this healthier and stronger, recognizing that we need to adapt to the new environment and take time to be refreshed and renewed. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean the whole community, not just inside Portico or our own families.”

LEARNING #5: ANTICIPATE A DIFFERENT KIND OF FUTURE

Jeff and I share some concerns as we look forward into 2021. Onboarding new employees is something that worries me. We want new employees to feel pride in Portico and to feel connected. But how do we do that when they haven’t met their coworkers in person? Every day, I think about what we can do to build a stronger sense of connectedness. Jeff shared concerns about the broader ELCA community. “Some ministries and leaders will falter because of the toll this is taking on them. For some, it could be the virus adversely affecting their health. But for many, it’s the stress, the pace, the exhaustion, or a fundamental unwillingness to change. All this change wears on folks. When I look out across the whole church, I feel concerned, and I plead with people to take care of themselves so that they can serve others.”

Though more challenges lie ahead for us, Jeff and I are proud of how well Portico has adapted to the changes COVID-19 forced us to make and we’re so grateful for everyone at the organization because they’re the reason we’ve been able to get through this. It’s taken everyone working together and having the agility and resilience needed to embrace this new reality. And I’m so grateful for our members. Without them we wouldn’t exist, and they’ve been tremendously resilient, too. Jeff wholeheartedly agreed. “It’s amazing what our members have done. The speed, agility, and creativity they’ve used to keep ministries going even when buildings are closed. It’s remarkable. And the strength and commitment of the front-line workers in our social ministry organizations is absolutely humbling. I’m so thankful to be called to work that helps faith communities across this country — and even around the world — weather this pandemic. What we do helps them continue to serve and I’m so grateful for that.”

As for the future, Jeff noted, “Flexibility will be more important than ever. We’re going to need to be flexible in terms of our workforce, how we serve, and who we serve.” For my part, I think we’re going to need to be innovative in how we engage and connect, and how we instill that sense of collaboration if we’re not together in real time. Plus, we need creative ways to deal with the exhaustion and stress that comes from this new environment. It’s about thinking in a way that drives us forward in our mission to enhance holistic well-being.

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Stacy Kruse

Stacy blends a wealth of for-profit business experience with non-profit purpose in her role at Portico, where she leads all operational and financial aspects of the organization. Her dedication to process improvements and risk mitigation lays the groundwork for sound financial stewardship of members’ resources. Stacy strongly believes in helping employees see where Portico is headed and why, so that everyone understands their roles and works together toward a shared mission.  

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